Delco Profile: Fiona Hew-Wing and Ron Starr Reimagine Downtown Chester with Penn Cafe

Fiona Hew-Wing and Ron Starr are bold dreamers: When they look at the Avenue of the States stretching up from the Chester County Courthouse, they see profound potential for a bustling, vibrant neighborhood. One day, they imagine luxury apartments, restaurants, artist spaces — a “Main Street vibe,” as Starr puts it.

Penn Cafe

Penn Cafe’s founders Ron Starr & Fiona Hew-Wing

The duo is so committed to the concept of the live/work/play community they’re calling Penn Square, that they’ve invested in opening a modern coffee shop right in the heart of Chester at 420 Avenue of the States: Penn Cafe. This, they believe, will be the anchor from which more growth and development will flow.

“We took a chance on a community that we care about and love,” Starr says. “I think we’re inspiring a movement in downtown Chester and it’s invigorated a lot of business owners and property owners here to step up what they’re doing. There hasn’t been this type of energy here in a long time.”

Starr, who’s lived in Chester for 24 years, has served in both local and state government; he was the Executive Director of PA’s Legislative Black Caucus and the Chief of Staff for Mayor Linder and Mayor Kirkland. Believing in Chester’s promise, he frequently pitched development ideas to businesses and organizations. The answer was usually no. 

“I got tired of asking people to come into the city to save our community,” he says. “That got very frustrating, so I felt I should take it upon myself to create some of the things that the city was missing.” 

His first step in this venture was a home healthcare company to serve the city’s elderly population. He asked Hew-Wing, who has a background in architecture and real estate, to be the CEO of the company, Penn Home Health Care. Once she and her employees were working in their office, which is also on the Avenue of the States, they realized there was nowhere nearby to get something fresh for lunch. Thus, the concept for Penn Cafe was born. 

“We felt the city was missing an upscale cafe,” Starr says. “Why do we always have to go to Philadelphia or Media to get something nice? So we decided to take our vision for downtown to the next level.” 

Through Starr’s real estate development company, they acquired most of the square block in front of City Hall, including the Delaware County Historical Society Building, the old police station, jail and district courts, as well as a former bank. The bank space, with its large windows and impressive facade, was where they opened Penn Cafe.

When it came to the design and aesthetics of the cafe, Starr and Hew-Wing let their creativity soar. The bright, airy space is filled with luxe materials, like marble and brass, custom furniture, African art, an electric fireplace, gorgeous light fixtures and nearly 100 live plants. Out front, there is an expansive patio with wooden tables and umbrellas. The custom cafe counter is crafted from a century-old walnut tree sourced from Chester, which was donated by a neighbor. They tapped local artist L. Ward to design and build the live-edge counter, which features a colorful stripe of green light shot through the front.

Penn Cafe

“A lot of people say they’ve never been in a cafe this beautiful, and these are people who’ve been all over the world,” Starr shares. “People feel a sense of pride when they see our space, and it changes their perception of what Chester can be.”

Penn Cafe

The menu keeps pace with the sleek interior. True to their original inspiration for high-quality, fresh options, Penn Cafe serves La Colombe coffee, pastries and cookies, breakfast sandwiches, flatbreads, panini and soups. It also has a large selection of fresh fruit smoothies, sparkling probiotic drinks and fun, non-alcoholic wines. 

“We’re foodies, and we worked with our families to design a menu with all of our favorite things on it,” Hew-Wing says.

Some of Penn Cafe’s best-selling offerings are its pineapple-mango-spinach smoothie, shrimp and grits, chocolate chip cookies and the beef bacon BLT.

“We don’t sell any pork, because we want to be in tune with the community,” Hew-Wing says. “Chester has a large Muslim population, and many people won’t even come in if pork is prepared in the kitchen.” 

They employ a few local high school students, providing career readiness and training, but Hew-Wing works behind the counter nearly every day. Her warm, engaging presence is part of what’s helped to build a true community in the cafe.

“Fiona is the engine that makes everything run, and she knows everybody and remembers all their names!” Starr says. “We’re like the Cheers! of Chester, and everyone feels welcome here.”

“It’s tough mentally and physically working in a cafe, but the thing I’ve enjoyed the most is meeting people,” Hew-Wing echoes. 

The reception from the community has been overwhelmingly positive. In addition to the regulars who come in for morning coffee, there are folks who come to study or do remote work, or take meetings in the space. Starr and Hew-Wing have met with representatives from nearby Widener University, Neumann University and Swarthmore College. (Swarthmore’s OneCard is now accepted as a form of payment at Penn Cafe.)  

“After we were on FYI Philly last summer, I was in the Trader Joe’s in Media and a woman came up to me and said, ‘I know you! I saw you on TV!’” Hew-Wing remembers. “The news about Penn Cafe is moving beyond Chester’s limits, and we have people coming in from Wallingford, Philly, even Delaware.”

All signs point to further positive changes on the Avenue of the Arts, and the possibility that Starr and Hew-Wing’s vision for Penn Square could become a reality. And, they’re just getting started. Starr and Hew-Wing’s next project is a steakhouse with bowling lanes in the basement, and a 10-unit apartment building next door. 

“We’re going to show people that Chester can be like any other community, and we don’t have to wait,” Starr says. “The neighborhood is like this beautiful flower that’s starting to bloom.”

For more information on Penn Cafe, or to order online, visit its website. For updates on menu specials, hours and events, follow along on Instagram

Find Penn Cafe at 420 Avenue of the States in Chester, PA; (484) 357-1013.

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Want to know more about everything Delco? We’re more than just your source for good eats — we’re your source for where to stay, what to do and more in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. We’re Visit Delco, PA, and we’ve got you covered from Philly to the Brandywine. Find us at 1501 N. Providence Rd., Media, PA, 19063; (610) 565-3679 or online.

Emily Kovach 

All photos courtesy of Penn Cafe